The most reviled side in modern-day football, RB Leipzig represent the Austrian energy drink brand, Red Bull, rather than the grand, historic city of Leipzig.
Created, literally, in 2009, RB Leipzig are equally vilified for being extraordinarily successful. From jumping into bed with Markranstädt, fifth-flight non-achievers from outside Leipzig, the German element of this global franchise has leapfrogged up the divisions on the strength of the licence gained from an original transaction of a few hundred thousand euros.
From the 5,000-capacity Stadion am Bad in Markranstädt, and a league debut against Carl Zeiss Jena reserves in 2009, RB have risen to the top of German football. Within a 24-hour period in December 2016, the club took on Bayern Munich as neck-and-neck Bundesliga leaders and announced the purchase of the Red Bull Arena, the former Zentralstadion national stadium that once held 120,000 people.
In reaching the top, they have ridden roughshod over the most sacred principle in the German game, that of club ownership by members, the so-called 50+1 rule that gives dedicated supporters the right of veto over any oil mogul who happens to own their club. Setting fees for membership with voting powers at ten times that at, say Bayern Munich, has allowed RB to circumvent the otherwise healthy foundations upon which Germany has built an egalitarian, affordable and enviably successful game at domestic and international level.
The reaction at other clubs, or rather by supporters of other clubs, has been scathing, even violent. From refusing to visit what is now the Red Bull Arena to throwing paint at the team bus, fans of Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen (!) have shown their contempt.
The name alone, RB (officially standing for ‘RasenballSport’ – ‘Lawn Ball Sport’) is laughable.
And yet… while Chelski have bought success from 2003 onwards, Qatar Sports Investments funded PSG’s march since 2011 – and while Wolfsburg, Ingolstadt and, if you please, Bayer Leverkusen, have been backed by their local automobile and pharmaceutical industries – RB haven’t poached long-established stars from top clubs.
In fact, many outside Germany would be hard pushed to name any of the current RB team that outshone Dortmund, Leverkusen and Gazprom-backed Schalke in the 2016-17 autumn campaign.
The key here is coaching. RB’s upward trajectory hit top gear with the arrival of Ralf Rangnick in 2012. The former Schalke 04 coach came to an ambitious new club marooned in the fourth tier Regionalliga and, having moved from the Markranstädt to the Zentralstadion, still drawing four-figure crowds.
Combining his job as sporting director of sister club Red Bull Salzburg, Rangnick was able to bring players over from Austria – to the chagrin of fans there – and bolster his squad. Signing the likes of young Stuttgart midfielder Joshua Kimmich, RB scaled the 3.Liga in only one season, attendances of 40,000 filling the renamed Red Bull Arena towards the end of the campaign.
Gaining a trickier licence for the Zweite Bundesliga, RB gave a creditable account of themselves in 2014-15 – but it was time for Rangnick to step in as head coach. Starting the 2015-16 campaign by opening a €35 million training centre, RB offloaded Kimmich to Bayern and bought the equally promising Davie Selke for €8 million from Werder Bremen, a record buy for a second-tier club.
Selke, named Golden Player of the U-19 Euros in 2014 and later to star for Germany at the 2016 Olympics, was a typical RB signing. Rather than pay €30 million-plus for a crowd-pulling international in his thirties, the club relies on Rangnick’s instincts for young football talent.
Sure enough, in May 2016, a 2-0 win over Karlsruhe gained RB promotion to the Bundesliga, causing a beer-wielding Selke to chase Rangnick round the pitch in celebration – and the head coach to pull a hamstring.
Now with the big boys, for 2016-17 Rangnick called on Ralph Hasenhüttl to coach his boys. A forward at SV Austria Salzburg before Red Bull stepped in, Hasenhüttl had worked miracles at Ingolstadt, Bundesliga newbies the season before.
Apart from 19-year-old Scottish striker Oliver Burke, signed from Nottingham Forest, Rangnick kept faith with the core of the promotion side, forward Terrence Boyd, midfielder Marcel Sabitzer and winger Emil Forsberg now long-established internationals for the USA, Austria and Sweden respectively.
The results were revolutionary. Knocking aside Dortmund in the second game, thrashing a woeful HSV in Hamburg and overcoming Bayer in Leverkusen, RB won ten of their first 13 league games, going until mid December unbeaten.
That was in the league. The cup was a different matter, as classic old GDR side Dynamo Dresden overcame RB on penalties after a 2-2 draw, 29,000 baying for blood at their venerable ground. Displaying old GDR flags and throwing coins at RB players, Dynamo’s notorious fans surpassed themselves when they hurled a severed bull’s head towards the pitch. Some things, it seems, never change in the former East Germany.
RB eventually claimed runners-up spot in the Bundesliga, earning a Champions League berth and subsequently making a run in the Europa League past Napoli and Zenit St Petersburg. A season later, RB were drawn against Celtic, Rosenborg and brand mates RB Salzburg in the group stage of the same competition.
When RB Leipzig moved into what was the Zentralstadion in 2010, the place was far too vast for their modest needs as a Regionalliga side with 4,000 crowds. By the time they bought Red Bull Arena in December 2016, there were plans in place to increase capacity from 42,558 – now reached for every home game – to 57,000.
Still ringed by heroic statuary from when the ground was constructed, brick by brick, by Leipzig citizens in the mid-1950s, the former Zentralstadion will soon be rebuilt in stages, losing is neo-classical look of the Soviet days. Back then, 100,000-plus crowds filled the arena for major East German internationals. For the 2006 World Cup, a new ground was built with the exterior of the old one, with walkways connecting the two. Since 2006, the stadium had long lacked a home club with pulling power.
Renamed the Red Bull Arena in 2010, the ground still has the shape and configuration of the Socialist days, the sectors named A-D as would be the case across the former Soviet Union. Sektor B is the home end, still all-seated (like the rest of the stadium) despite calls for standing areas as found elsewhere across Germany for domestic fixtures.
There are also RB fans behind the other goal in sektor D. The Gästesektor is between sectors C and D in a far corner opposite the home end.
From platform 3 outside the train station, tram Nos.3, 7 and 15 (Mon-Sat daytime every 10min, Mon-Sat eve & Sun every 15min) run four stops to Sportforum Süd (7min), right by the stadium grounds.
For away fans, there’s also a shuttle bus that runs from the West Side of the main station from noon, then back from the stadium until 7pm if the game is a Saturday afternoon.
While RB Leipzig ride high in the Bundesliga, ticket availability is real issue. Nearly all matches are sold out, so unless you’re here for a friendly, a cup fixture or, as is likely in 2017-18, a European game, you might be struggling.
The club does advise that any returns are sold (cash-only) from 1pm at the main ticket office in the stadium forecourt before a 3.30pm Saturday kick-off. All ticket news during the season is posted on the club website.
In principle, there are advance sales about six weeks before each home game, first for those already registered online, then via online open sale, then in person from the Red Bull Shop (Mon-Sat 10am-8pm) at Neumarkt 19-23 in town and at the Arena Ticket (Mon-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat 10am-4pm), between the main tram-lined street of Jahnallee and the Red Bull Arena.
One final option is a ticket resale agency, such as Viagogo.
Prices are in three categories of matches, A-C, and differ in five areas of the stadium from the best over the halfway lines in A and C (€45-€65) to behind the goal in Fanblock B (€10). Average is around €30 near each goalmouth.
The main outlet is in town, as opposed to at the stadium. The Red Bull Shop (Mon-Sat 10am-8pm) at Neumarkt 19-23 is on the south side of the city centre, close to the CineStar cinema.
Most merchandise – shirts, scarves, flags – still carries the ‘1 Eins Für Ganz Leipzig’ slogan that came with promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016.
There are no bars in the immediate vicinity of the stadium but a couple here and there along main streets reasonably close by. The nearest are on Waldstraße, about a 5-7min walk to the stadium, either side of the Arena City Hotel. These include two rather smart restaurants where you can enjoy a beer outside in summer: modern, cosmopolitan Diego and Trattoria No.1 with its unsurprisingly Italian menu. By the hotel are more suitable pre-match bars. The Deutscher Hof offers TV football and Czech Budvar beer while facing it on the corner of Fregestraße, the Köthener Pub is an honest sports bar. It’s open from late afternoon but makes a point of setting up two hours before kick-off on match days.
The alternative to Waldstraße is Jahnallee, the main tram-lined street that leads from the station. Here Bobbys is a real football hang-out, with a big screen and pre-match imbibery. A couple of doors down, the
Löwen-Tanke is the same idea, though it’s half-bar, half-shop, so people pop in for tins of tomatoes while punters gawp at match action over bottles of Ur-Krostitzer.